Shea McClellin

Bears linebacker Shea McClellin is battling for a starting job. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune / May 27, 2014)

You can stamp the labels on Shea McClellin. First-round pick. Failed defensive end. Potentially promising strong side linebacker. All of those fit.

But whatever lens McClellin is viewed through as the 2014 season nears, there is no question this will be a telling stretch for his NFL future.

During the early stages of Chicago Bears training camp, it’s clear McClellin is relishing all his new chances. He has a chance now to take advantage of a new role, moving back one level on the defense into a role that will allow him to better utilize his instincts and vision.

He has a chance now to turn the page on two disappointing seasons at defensive end during which he totaled only 6.5 sacks and five other tackles for losses.

Above all else, he has a chance now to alter the narrative of his story. One way or the other.
Another disappointing campaign will push McClellin closer to that ugly territory inhabited by previous first-round Bear busts. (We’re looking at you, Cade McNown, Curtis Enis and Michael Haynes.) But a breakthrough for McClellin working under coordinator Mel Tucker and linebackers coach Reggie Herring this fall? Well, that will allow him to solidify himself as a key cog in a defense that’s in the middle of an energetic revival push.

General manager Phil Emery has high hopes for McClellin. And he should. Emery was the decision maker who pulled the trigger on McClellin with the 19th overall pick in 2012. But he also insists that McClellin will have to earn his keep in a heated competition at linebacker where Jon Bostic wants to carve out a niche of his own and could end up edging McClellin out for a starting role.

So will Emery play favorites at any point of the process with plenty of incentive to make sure that his very first draft pick as Bears GM gets every possible chance to flourish? And if McClellin can’t make an impact, won’t it be hard for Emery to cut bait and let him go?

“I don’t think in reverse like that,” Emery told Matt Spiegel and former Bear Patrick Mannelly on Monday on WSCR 670-AM. “I don’t think about the end. I think about today and putting the best players on the field. And they have to earn their jobs. So I love them all. All (90) players who are on the squad right now, they’re all Bears. They’re all ours. We have ownership in terms of they’re part of us. And I hate having to release any player. So they have to earn their role in life and as a football player.

“And (the end) only comes two ways. You either retire or you’re released. … It doesn’t matter to me. Whoever earns that job. It is a wide open competition.”

Emery has been straightforward since the spring in asserting that Lance Briggs is the only guaranteed starter at linebacker with McClellin, Bostic, D.J. Williams and Khaseem Greene battling for roles as starters and back-ups.

“We’re going to find the right combination to line up in base defense with, then in our nickel package find the best guys to rotate in in any given situation. That’s the goal.”

If McClellin’s first two seasons have gone down as disappointing, there seems to be much greater optimism about the immediate future of Emery’s latest first-round pick, cornerback Kyle Fuller.
Fuller opened training camp practice last week with two interceptions in his first practice and continues to impress coaches and teammates with his toughness, instincts and feel for the game. Emery also sees natural leadership ability in Fuller.

“I’m impressed number one with the person,” Emery said. “I really think that if Kyle stays on this track that he’s on right now that he’s going to end up being one of our team leaders down the road. When it comes his time. When he’s spent enough time as a Bear and he’s earned that right over performance and time, he has the personality set and the core person he is morally to be a really outstanding leader.

“He’s made plays out here. And the one thing I can tell you is that he competes every play at a very high level.”

dwiederer@tribune.com

Twitter @danwiederer